Late last week, five papers from the Lifestyle During Pregnancy Study* were published online in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Unfortunately, findings from the papers have been incorrectly and irresponsibly reported by some to say that drinking low to moderate quantities of alcohol during pregnancy is completely safe and without risk.
Researchers conducted tests on a group of 5-year-old children whose mothers consumed low to moderate amounts of alcohol in pregnancy. The papers found no serious effects on three neurodevelopmental functions.
Although rarely mentioned in media coverage of the papers, the study investigated just a few of the numerous possible harmful outcomes of low to moderate alcohol use during pregnancy. Many previous studies show that drinking alcohol at low to moderate levels during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, and a range of reproductive difficulties. For example, a recent publication by Danish researchers who were also studying the effect of alcohol on pregnancy using the same Danish National Birth Cohort used in the five new studies found even low amounts of alcohol consumption during early pregnancy substantially increased the risk of spontaneous abortion.
Because alcohol can affect each pregnancy differently for a variety of reasons such as genetics, metabolism, and nutrition it is both inaccurate and careless to use the finding as the rationale for suggesting that consuming a substance known to be a neurotoxin to a developing baby, even in small amounts, is without risk.
In general it is true that the lower the exposure to a toxin substance the lower the risk, but a reduced risk does not make the toxic substance become non-toxic. In most cases when a toxin is identifiedâ?”even if very few people among all that are exposed are harmedâ?”the public is informed that the substance has been found to be toxic and they are advised to avoid exposure (such as to some pharmaceuticals that pregnant women are told to avoid or in some cases not even handle). Perhaps it reflects the important cultural tradition of alcohol in America and other societies when some are eager to tell others that low to moderate quantities of a substance known to be a neurotoxin during pregnancy is okay.
The level of risk that people are willing to tolerate is a personal choice. Ask yourself, would you knowingly allow your children to be exposed to low or moderate levels of lead, mercury, asbestos, radon gas, or other harmful substances? While some might, it is reckless for them to advise others to take a course of action based on their personal tolerance of risk. When a risk has been confirmed the only universal recommendation can be to avoid or abstain from exposure due to the risk.
NOFAS encourages readers to review all the research on low to moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and joins the United States Surgeon General in advising abstention from alcohol during pregnancy due to the risk of birth defects.
*The Lifestyle During Pregnancy Study is a prospective follow-up of 1750 mother—child pairs, sampled on the basis of maternal alcohol drinking patterns from The Danish National Birth Cohort (DNBC), a study of 101,042 pregnancies enrolled 1997—2003. Data collection in the DNBC involved four prenatal and postnatal maternal interviews, providing detailed information on maternal alcohol drinking patterns before and during pregnancy, caffeine intake, smoking, diet, and other lifestyle, medical, and sociodemographic factors.